Self-Discipline for Standardised Tests

Article by Jacci Linn, UK Director at CATES Tutoring:

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While many students and tutors alike will claim ‘content is key’ to success on the US admissions tests, CATES believes there’s a bigger elephant in the room. An elephant that determines how high your score will be and how many times you’ll need to test.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well if it’s not content, what is it?”. Content is, of course, the foundation of our work and the catalyst to answering questions correctly on these tests. However, one crucial step should to be considered before we even look at content.

For many students, years 11 and 12 are some of the most stressful of their lives thus far. Not only worried about hitting predicted scores and performing well on exams, stresses to score well on the ACT, SAT, and possible subject tests, on top of school extracurriculars all lead to mounting anxiety and pressure. What most do not consider in this time of full-fledged chaos is that one thing can aid in conquering an otherwise daunting task. “What is this magical key?”, you ask? It’s more simple than you think.

Daniel Goldstein, PhD once said, “I think self-discipline is something, it’s like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.”

The key all students seek in cracking the testing process amidst a span of performance and time pressures in life is self-discipline. Perhaps those of you reading this may have just let out a collective groan, but please, stay with me.

Take a moment and list out the top 10 things that require your attention today. Not tomorrow, not next week. Today. It may be homework, a phone call to your grandmother, whatever. Just write 10.

Now, how many of those things did you question whether you really had to do today instead of tomorrow or next week? Four? Seven? All of them? This is our problem in self-discipline today. When inundated with thousands of decisions a day, our minds actively choose the things that are most urgent, i.e. that paper you have due tomorrow that you haven’t even started, or are most pleasurable, like sending a Snapchat story to your countless followers for the sixth time today.

Luckily for us, our brains know how to prioritise. Paper > Snapchat. However, the ability to think long-term about our best interests is something our brains don’t automatically do. Thankfully, we can employ something else to overcome our own weaknesses.

The tool of self-discipline will allow you to not only avoid those late nights cramming for exams or writing papers, but to prepare for your next big step in life, university. Below you’ll find four key steps to jump-start your own self-discipline. Use these tools as you go into the next few weeks and months of exams, revision, and more. You’ll find your life becoming more organised. You’ll realise you have more time for the things you want to do because you aren’t wasting time, and, you’ll learn a skill that will help you for many years to come.

Setting SMART goals

When CATES meets a new student for the first time, we often ask, “Who do you want to be?” It seems like an obvious thing to ask, but very rarely do we ask ourselves the same question. Take a moment and list out five or more things you want to accomplish, do, see, etc. Now, ask yourself this, “How am I going to get there?”.

That’s where SMART goals come in. Very rarely will we successfully achieve something without figuring out a way to get there. A plan must be in place. A roadmap, if you will. SMART goals allow us to outline what we want to accomplish, and help us to determine how to get there.

The first letter is ’S’. S stands for specific. The more specific our goals are, the clearer they become in ability to achieve. While a vague goal allows for ambiguity, specific goals help us to target exactly what we want and how to focus in on it. Look back at your list of five or more things. How can you take that list and make each of those things more specific?

The second letter is ‘M’. M stands for measurable. Perhaps earning enough scholarship money to attend US university with no debt is your mission. AWESOME goal. But what does that mean for you? Each university has different tuition, room and board, etc. Getting scholarship money may pay for one university’s tuition, but doesn’t cover another’s. By setting measurable goals we can use data to help keep us accountable. How much money is required for this goal to be accomplished? What score do I need to hit my target? Measurable goals are all about figures. Use the ‘M’ to help you determine a target to strive for and to help you know when you’ve accomplished the task.

The third letter is ‘A’. A stands for achievable. An achievable goal is one that’s realistic. We are all about the dreamers out there, but by setting achievable goals you are far more likely to succeed. Let’s get real here. When looking back at your list, what seems realistic? Is one of your goals to go to the moon, but you just so happen to be deathly afraid of heights? Perhaps that goal isn’t achievable for you. But maybe you’re looking at your goal and you think it’s unrealistic, because you cannot fathom how you’ll raise £10000 in the next six months. While that may feel unrealistic, that goal is one to look at with a careful eye and think about the steps before it. Get specific, think in terms of data with measurement and get to the achievement. By setting SMART goals, what we may have formerly thought to be unachievable, all of a sudden seems within our grasp.

The fourth letter is ‘R’. R stands for relevant. Relevant goals matter to us. Take a look once more at your list. Are there any goals on that list that are relevant to someone else but not to you? Perhaps your mum or dad want you to go to uni in the UK. Is that a goal you want for yourself? If not, perhaps that goal isn’t relevant, and you want to re-focus on what you want. Also consider things like timing. It’s possible that a goal can be specific, measurable, and achievable, but maybe not within this period of your life. Maybe you had having kids on your list, but you also happen to be single. Maybe this isn’t the most relevant time in your life for this goal to happen, and that’s okay! Asking yourself whether a goal is relevant will help you prioritise what’s most important today.

The final letter is ’T’. T stands for time-bound. Setting targets for timing on your goals can help you alleviate tight deadlines, avoid missed opportunities, and very often in university get you back precious hours of sleep. By setting time-bound goals, we help to set a calendar for ourselves in terms of deadlines. By setting the goal to nail your target score on the ACT by the June test date, you allow yourself to avoid having to prepare additional months over the summer for the September or October tests. Use the ’T’ in SMART goals to help build a framework for your goals and help get you organised for the many things you’ll be juggling in the upcoming months.

Get organised

Once you’ve figured out your SMART goals, now it’s time to put them into practice. Organise your goals from most important or time-sensitive to least. Set your priorities and make them clear. Once you’ve set your goals list, now build your calendar and due dates. This can include but is no way limited to writing down test dates, registration deadlines, exam timetables, practices for sports, etc. The more information you set forth to actively document in one place, the more organised you’ll become.

Organisation is not necessarily about giving yourself an hour-by-hour guide to your life. Rather, it’s an opportunity to find windows of times that allow you to work toward your goals. We all have 24 hours in our day. How best will you use yours?

Finding the time

After you’ve successful organised your goals and time, now’s the time to search for gaps. Think about the times in your day where you can get ahead. Maybe you spend half an hour on the tube in the morning that could be used for reading an article about an organisation that you want to gain an internship with. Or perhaps during school you have a free period each day that you can use to study for the ACT.

We know your schedule is busy. School. Homework. ACT/SAT prep. Practice. Internship. Work experience. The list goes on and on. Finding the time is about using the tools listed above to find windows in your day and weekends, to maximise your time. Half an hour a day can make huge changes in your goals, as long as you can apply that time in a meaningful and impacting way.

Take five minutes and look for the windows of 30 minutes or more in your schedule and begin to build your goals into your schedule. The more you can schedule in advance, and stick to the plan, the more likely you are to achieve that goal.

Do the work

This seems like a no-brainer but often is the most crucial point in self-discipline. Why do so many people lose will-power just shortly after they set their New Year’s resolution? Because they aren’t willing to do the work. You may have set your goals, made them SMART, and have organised your time to allow for the work to be done, but now is where the real test comes.

Are you going to do the work? You may have it written in your diary or programmed into Google Calendar. But when that notification goes off, are you going to do the work? Or are you going to take selfies to post on Instagram instead? Are you going to get to studying, or writing, or working at your internship, or are you going to be tempted to go for coffee with friends instead?

Listen, we all face temptation. It’s part of life. But take a step back and think about your goals. Each time you are faced with a temptation to go out for a night or instead get prepared for a mock test at 11 am the next day, ask yourself this: “Am I willing to let x (a night out, coffee with friends, social media posts, etc) get between me and this goal?”

If the answer is yes, then you haven’t set SMART goals yet. If the answer is no, which it should be, then DO THE WORK. It’s amazing how much we can accomplish when we stop letting excuses take over our lives and we implement ways to achieve what we’ve always dreamed of.

By setting SMART goals, getting organised, finding the time, and doing the work, you’ll be shocked to see your productivity soar, your drive and focus become clear, and your goals becoming reality. While content may be key, self-discipline will be what allows you to achieve in the upcoming weeks on admissions tests and exams and for years to come.